Tips for new baristas, from people who made a career of it

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Barista training comes in many forms, and if you’re looking to start or advance your barista career, it can be hard to know which path to choose.

How can you become a barista without experience? You can pay money for training and certification. You can read books and watch YouTube videos. Or you can just walk into your local coffee shop with a smile on your face and offer to do whatever needs to be done, then take it from there.

We’re not here to declare one path the best, but we have invited 13 baristas and former baristas who have made a career out of coffee, to offer some tips for new baristas.

If, after reading their words, you decide that certification is the way you want to go, you should be able to find a calendar of training offerings at the website of your country’s Specialty Coffee Association.

If book learning is more your thing, here are four of the best:

If you want to go straight to on-the-job training, understand that the high-end cafés usually want an experienced barista who is ready to step behind the bar. Your best bet is to project a winning personality, a passion for coffee and a willingness to learn, and find a place that’s willing to teach you about the coffee.

Interior of a coffee shop

Mentorship and community will do more for you than anything else, as many of the baristas told us. Now let’s get to their barista advice. (Some responses have been edited for brevity and/or clarity.)

Tips for new baristas: What the professionals say

Coffee can be intimidating. I know it certainly was for me. I spent a lot of time in shops through high school and college and would spend a lot of time just watching the bar flow of a cafe. I was a pretty avid home brewer, and watched the barista championship long before I knew anything really about coffee. It was enough for me to have a semi-educated conversation with a barista, but I still was too intimidated to apply anywhere.

My first café job I got from those conversations I would have about coffee. There was a pop-up café that was promoting a larger shop opening shortly after. I just asked a bunch of questions about the coffee because it was tasty and I genuinely wanted to know about it. By the end of the conversation, the manager encouraged me to apply and next thing you know, I was in my first specialty coffee scene!

Now, as a hiring manager in a café, I look for passion and interest. Coffee is incredible and there’s so much to learn, but as far as barrier to entry is concerned, it still is like most jobs where companies want you to demonstrate a passion for what you’re doing. After all, they have the resources available to train you however they see fit, so getting a bunch of expensive certifications, I think, is overkill.

The best early decision I think I made in coffee, was to be in environments that aligned with a career I envisioned for myself. I seek out companies to work for that I would genuinely enjoy spending time in, or whose mission aligns with my values, or they have some insight I really want to learn from. I know a lot of friends who got into coffee from being regulars at a café they now work at, and in my experience they have made great staff members. I was a regular at Boxcar before I started working there, and as I start looking for new jobs, the same criteria still applies: looking for a place that aligns with what’s important to me in coffee.

Judges at a barista competition
Judges get ready to taste the coffee at a barista competition. (© Jon Lin | Flickr)

I think getting some barista training in the form of a class is a great start, but in all reality you will learn your skills on the job.

Apply for a counter service position with the goal towards learning your way around machine and grinder as you work your way up. If you are a valuable employee and show initiative those with the skills will be more than happy to show you what they know. Get hands-on and learn in the quiet periods, and work hard doing everything else during the busy times.

I personally did one-on-one training with a skilled barista, then spent a week working with our roaster in Melbourne learning their very specific methods to getting a great extraction.

Prior to that I learned on the job in restaurants and bars where coffee was not the main priority.

Barista pouring milk at Tell Henry
A barista pours milk at Tell Henry, Brad Bonar's popular café in Adelaide.

I am not a fan of barista courses. They cost too much and don't teach you how to run a café floor by yourself. Being a barista is so much more than technical knowledge!

I actually suggest getting a job as a server, busser, or bar back at a restaurant. My career started at a pool snack bar, followed by my first 'real' job at a Rita's Water Ice (the real ones know), then I was a hostess at an Uno's Chicago Bar and Grill (I was awful). I then served at probably six or seven restaurants, did some bartending, and then FINALLY got a barista job.

Restaurant work teaches you that you are part of a system and helps you learn to see multiple aspects of service at one time. I believe that most baristas are severely undereducated in the field of hospitality and that most coffee shops don't teach it.

Working as a hospitality industry professional is a hard but very rewarding career that most people either don't take seriously enough or take too seriously. Working as a barista is all about balance—in the actual coffee, in your work/life, in your have-fun-but-work-hard attitude. It takes much more critical thinking and emotional intelligence than most people think.

I invested in barista education with the Barista Guild. I got support from the company I was working for, which helped financially a ton at the time. But getting the chance to earn my barista certificates at barista camp embedded me into the community of baristas across the globe. I met so many inspiring people who I still connect and collaborate with today.

Learning about coffee is more than some golden rules and formulas, it’s about relationships and exploration. The Specialty Coffee Association has facilitated an incredible opportunity for people to become immersed very quickly.

I went on to volunteer, then become a certified instructor. I have done many trips, classes, workshops. I was on the executive council for the Barista Guild. I now compete in barista competitions, which is an even deeper and richer community of idea sharing and intense coffee research and execution.

I started with books and YouTube videos when it was just beginning. I would definitely recommend using those tools, but they won’t be as valuable as the community aspect of joining the guild.

I’d say to young or new baristas who want to learn more to use social media to their advantage. Almost every major coffee company has a presence on Facebook or Instagram where you can read about their mission, their favorite coffees, where they buy and their relationships with farmers.

If you are able to afford it, join SCA and learn the leadership faces. Email them and call them about the tiniest questions. Trust me, they want to help. That information is just as vital as how to pour a latté and it retains the most important part of the coffee industry: the people and the culture.

If you can establish that human connection to a mentor, a coffee hero, a favorite coffee shop manager, you will always have someone to bounce ideas off and someone to confide in when you’re feeling unsure. That community saved me when I thought about quitting so many times. Stay connected and you’ll thrive.

I've done lots of book learning, talking to people, certifications and classes, and definitely lots of on-the-job barista experience. I think the biggest one that continues to keep me motivated to learn and improve is reminding myself that coffee is, and can be a career! For a lot of people, coffee can be a side thing, or a part-time job, and that's okay, but there are so many pathways and rooms to grow within the coffee industry as well. For myself, identifying what I enjoy doing, and what I value with coffee, helps me stay focused on what avenues to spend my energy on.

The other significant thing has been surrounding myself with people that share values, and working with people that also are motivated. It's a lot easier to grow when the people around you are also focused on growing and pushing themselves.

My final two cents are somewhat idealistic, but for anyone interested in a career in coffee or being a barista, my advice is that being a barista can be incredibly rewarding with the right mindset. The baristas that work the floor, dial in coffees and serve drinks with high standards, all while giving thoughtful service and placing the priority on the people they serve and the supply chain, are really the people that will shape what the industry looks like to your average consumer. The baristas are the ones that are showing up, cleaning bathrooms, making connections with people over little kindnesses, and ultimately giving meaning to coffee.

Smiling baristas behind the counter
Remember, it's ultimately the baristas that make or break the coffee experience. (© South African Tourism | Flickr)

The best early decision I made to build my career as a coffee professional was to compete in my first barista competition. Being involved in the coffee community has been one of the biggest assets to building my career. I believe that networking and building lasting, meaningful relationships within the community are key.

Also, I believe that to be successful as a barista or a coffee professional it is incredibly important to be self-motivated. It will be your own perseverance and hard work that will move you forward.

I also highly recommend attending events within the community. Even if you don't compete they are a great place to network and meet like-minded coffee professionals. The same goes for attending, competing or volunteering in competitions. They are a great way to learn and have fun with your peers.

Ask questions, listen to podcasts, read books.

I quite honestly feel like I'm addicted to competing. I love that it pushes me to be innovative and challenge myself. Team events are just as rewarding. I am confident I have grown and learned so much just by having the opportunity to work with others.

My greatest rewards have been seeing the baristas I have worked with and trained succeeding in their own careers. It’s also one of my biggest motivators.

The coffee industry is still growing so much, and I'm so excited to continue to be growing with it, and I hope to always be encouraging and inspiring other women to compete and pursue coffee careers.

Perhaps the best early decision in building my career as a barista was seeking out friendships and relationships with established coffee professionals and joining their cuppings. Having friends in those spaces allowed me to join events with support and network with others. These events included things I could volunteer for, work for, and where I could ultimately meet more people. It was through these friendships that I began to participate in planning and running events, competing in coffee competitions, and eventually find myself working a marketing role within the coffee industry.

I think like most people who started 10 years ago, and even today, I needed a job during university. A café seemed like a fun place to work. But when I decided I wanted to take it more seriously and improve my skills, I looked for a company that clearly had quality and innovation as their goal. And for me that was Phil & Sebastian. I’ve been with them ever since.

I took a latte art class with one of the owners, and that gave me a chance to talk to them and get to know who they are and for them to get to know me. Now that I know I want to work with this company, when it came time to applying for a job, I think it was it easier for both sides. So if anyone is unsure how to approach, taking some classes certainly can give you an idea, especially since many specialty coffee companies offer some sort of brewing classes, or espresso classes.

There’s nothing quite like learning in that cafe environment, though. You can put a lot of practice into getting better. On top of the training the company provides, supplement that with books and resources to continue to push yourself, and be able to put any theory to the test at work.

The best attitude to have is to be open to learn, and once you’ve learned it well, revisit the basics. I find that I can find something new, improve or disprove something that way. That’s how I’ve been able to get better and move from barista to trainer to quality director. Taking ownership of the learning and always wanting to do good work is how I’ve made a career out of it.

Everything you can learn outside of café work is like taking driver’s education and completing a test. To become a good driver, you have to put in the hours driving out in the real world. To me, that’s working in the café.

Coffee is my second career. My previous was investment finance, which I landed completely through networking. At that time I had built a strong rapport with the my business school dean, so as my senior year approached I leaned into his connections and ended up landing an "impossible" opportunity. Since my performance also reflected back on my professor via his recommendation, that respect built in a certain level of work ethic and responsibility that I probably would not have had otherwise.

When I was wanting to leave the finance world and starting to get serious about coffee, I used that same networking approach. I sought out people who were further along in the industry—people who were approachable and where I wanted to be career-wise. Since they had more to give me than I them, I'd just hang out while they were roasting or working the bar. I'd never insert my opinion or question their actions, I'd just ask for clarification whenever I'd see something that piqued my curiosity. You can learn a lot by listening instead of talking.

When you're just hanging around and not being annoying, eventually you'll spot an open door. For me it was the roaster of the mom-and-pop cafe I was working at, getting ready to expand their operation. I didn't have to interview for it or even fill out an application. Nothing! They already knew me. So, it was as simple as them telling me when they'd need help putting the furniture together. And just like that, I was full-time in the coffee world.

Coffee is a people business, so get good at interacting with people. Read some people skill books like: How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and Be a People Person by John Maxwell.

Keep networking and keep growing. One of the realities with coffee is that growth is often limited based on your employer. So if you've maxed out your growth with your current company, then don't be afraid to move on to where you can keep growing. But pay your dues and stick with one place for at least two years, otherwise you'll get the reputation of being that barista that jumps ship every three months and no one will hire you.

The coffee industry is exactly what you make of it. I've trained, managed bars, assistant roasted, co-opened a roastery, guest-blogged, and most recently published a barista coffee ebook. Your opportunity and future is as narrow or vast as you choose it to be for yourself. It's completely up to you.

Phil Cook prepares pour-over coffee using a Chemex
Phil Cook, author of The Book of Coffee, prepares a pour-over in the Chemex.

First, ask a few introspective questions:

Do you like the career you already have? If so, stay with it and keep coffee as a hobby. If not, then continue forward.

Have you ever worked in food service/customer service? If no, consider how you respond when people are less than kind to you. Coffee at the end of the day is a service career.

Have you worked in a café/coffee shop before? If not, go do that. Try it out for a month or two. The hours are less than ideal—weekends, holidays. Also the pay is pretty low for the entire industry, and benefits are pretty minimal. It really needs to be a passion project or a labor of love.

If you are in the café and looking to advance, online learning and certificates are great but having experience is typically more desirable. Go work for the best café in town, learn everything you can. Watch the barista competitions. Be inspired.Taste a bunch or coffee, beer, wine, spirits, foods. Be an excellent taster and you can go far.

If all of this discouragement still leaves you wanting to pursue a future in coffee, go for it! Not every career deals directly with people at all times. Roasters can be quite introverted (it can actually be an asset). However, these jobs are often filled from within and don't come up very often.

If you are an amazing designer or an aspiring designer, do cool coffee stuff and show it to your favorite café owner or manager. We always need helpful marketers, system designers, production managers. These jobs may not come to the front of your mind, but they are essential to the whole thing working.

The best early decision I made in building my career was writing my vision and making it plain. I then figured out how my vision would be set apart from similar concepts and shared it with specific people who I knew could help me in interpreting that vision.

Although I operate as a barista, that's only a fraction of the work I've put into growing my business. I had to train myself to become an owner/operator. Had I only operated as a barista, Gilly would not be where it is today. Without a plan I would naturally default to just creating innovative drinks. The reality though is, to have a sustainable company it requires way more what most people see behind the bar.

As a man of principle, I would suggest somebody put this into action for themselves by writing their vision down and making it plain. Then I would encourage them by saying that the vision waits for its appointed time. If it seems slow, wait for it. It will surely come.

Be loyal and show genuine gratitude to those who help you along the way. Locate appropriate (and willing) mentors. There's something you can learn from any situation and group of people. Find the most experienced person in the group and pay attention to them. The knowledge and support that others share with you often comes from years of effort and experience. Respect the time that it took.

Be humble, work hard (really, and not just when other people are around to witness it). Try to figure things out through observation (and maybe even trial) before bugging everyone around you and feeling entitled to having all your questions answered (especially if it's distracting from the work that needs doing).

Literally and figuratively: Don't just clean up after yourself, but try to leave any room you're in a little better than how you found it.

When you've got some experience yourself, don't forget to share it with those who are just starting out themselves.

Keep in mind that we're all here to help make it better for everyone. We are in the service industry, after all.

With all these wise words in mind, we hope you’ll take charge of your own barista training and find a way into the coffee community. As some of these professionals have shown, your time behind the bar might only be the start.

Welcome to Bean Poet!

We’re here to help you make and enjoy better coffee. We aren’t coffee snobs, but if you want to become one, this isn’t a bad place to start. Please know that as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. You can sign up for our occasional newsletters below.

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